Sunday 18 December 2016

Virtual Possibilities

I was asked the other day what virtual reality could do beyond the obvious entertainment it provides. A bit of online research shows VR moving in a number of directions beneficial to education.  

Below is a list that covers everything from currently available software to academic research and emerging uses.  It isn't even remotely complete.


VR for physio therapy

Phantom Limb Pain Recovery

When I worked in Japan I did a lot of work with a local doctor who was researching therapeutic muscle stimulation in patients recovering from paralysis.  A lot of that physiotherapy was very hard work for both the patients and the people working with them.  VR would offer a way to produce more natural, targeted and full range interaction without the tedium and limitation of repetitive exercise.

The CBC piece above is talking about how amputees with phantom limb syndrome use VR to reconnect the neural pathways that used to operate the missing part.  Body confusion over the missing part appears to be the cause of phantom pains in missing limbs.  The immersive nature of VR allows patients to exercise those neurons and reduce instances of false pain responses.

Physical Therapy VR Research
If you've ever immersed yourself in VR you quickly become aware of how elsewhere you feel.  I've felt vertigo while standing on a cliff in Google Earth.  As a tool for balance and movement it has obvious immediate applications.

A Home-made VR Motion Sensor and Data Collection Tool
Currently, my senior computer engineering students are designing an Arduino based virtual reality movement sensor that will collect data on a user's movements while immersed.  They are programming a Java based back end in computer science to collect the data streaming from the ultrasonic sensor in order to create data-sets of movement while immersed.  This data could be used to measure the depth of immersion the user is experiencing.  More immersed people tend to physically interact more with the virtual environment - that physical interaction can be used to collect data.

Analysis of the data means they might be able to produce accurate information on how well a user is playing a game, how effectively an athlete is following a VR training regimen or perhaps if a patient recovering from an injury is making the right motions in physio.  It should be able to isolate and describe the physical limitations of a user in VR.  Unlike previous digital experiences through the window of a monitor, VR offers immediate physical feedback that we're going to record.

Digital interaction is going to be much less sedentary in the future.

VR and Autism

Floreo Autism Therapy
Founded by two dads of kids with autism, Floreo explores VR as a therapy.  I like their approach: autism isn't seen as a defect but a difference that we can support with therapies designed to allow these different thinking kids to survive and thrive with everyone else.

Austism Speaks on Virtual Reality 

Autism Speaks is a science focused advocacy group that is encouraging a seed change in how society views the spectrum of atypical autism related thinking.  

In this article they are funding research into a VR based social cognition training in order for autistic people to function more effectively with others.  The complexities of autism means they need to proceed carefully with data collection.  VR's unique sense of immersion means they can simulate social situations (and the anxiety that arises from them) more accurately and produce responses that reflect it.  The data collected from this specifically targeted research is vital to creating tools to help people with autism practice social skills more effectively.

Having kids who are already comfortable with VR means that when this therapy is ready they won't have to get familiar with the technology before they benefit from the therapeutic value of the program.

Sensitivity Training for Neurotypicals
We're currently using a 360 camera to create a VR based tour of our school.  In it students get to move around the building looking where they want in order to begin to get a sense of where everything is.  Editing 4k 360° video is a challenge - I have to use the best VR PC we have to do it (when it isn't running VR), but we'll get there.

In the meantime, I came across this immersive video made by the UK's National Autistic Society.  Designed in collaboration with autistic people, it gives you some idea of how overwhelming the world can be when an autistic child has a panic attack.  It's overwhelming watching it on the screen.  Watching it in VR I was in tears...

If you're not in VR and haven't done 360° video before, you can move the point of view around with your mouse as you watch.  As a way of trying to explain to others how it feels to have a panic attack when you're autistic, it's a powerful tool.

Using VR to Teach Autistic Teens How to Drive
Another ready-now application for VR is in vehicle operation.  High performance operators such as racers use it to learn tracks.  Heavy equipment operators are using it to train people on expensive industrial machines before they ever get into the cab for the first time.  Pilots have to log flight time in a simulator as part of becoming qualified on a new plane.  As a way to get people familiar with a complex machine it's cheap and effective.

In this case VR is being used to ease the anxiety of learning to drive in teens with autism.  Every high school in our board has driving instruction starting in their parking lots.  They should all be adopting this first step in order to ease anxiety before putting any kid behind the wheel for the first time.

General education links

The Virtual Reality Society
Based out of the UK, this group offers a great resource site to get your feet wet in VR.  They are also very interested in how VR can be used in teaching and learning and a lot of their links will take you emerging uses of this technology.

That Tim King Guy

There's this guy in Canada who jumped into this early and has his students building VR kits for other schools.  He's out and about often demonstrating the technology in his school, his board and his province to anyone who will listen.  He and his students have put hundreds of people through their first experience with VR.

His interest is in the engineering that creates the immersive VR experience.  It takes astonishing amounts of computing power to produce 3d immersive simulations.  Astonishing amounts of computing power are what got his attention in the first place.

Education isn't  usually responsive to emerging technologies but this guy's MO is to explore new technologies, and this one is going take immersive simulation (something he's always been interested in) to unforeseen levels.

VR and Mathematics
Experiential algebra in VR.  The benefits of visualizing mathematics in 3d are obvious.  This is one of many academic papers on the subject.
Geometry is another obvious use for 3d data visualization.  This is another academic paper on using VR in teaching geometry.

VR and Chemistry
Chemistry is one of those hands on teaching environments that have a lot of safety oversight.  Using VR to familiarize students with the safety needs of the lab could drastically reduce damage costs.  The safety training applications school-wide in technology and science are obvious.

These guys used Unity just like my software engineering course does - this is something that capable high school students could render.  Perhaps we will next semester.
Drop into a chemistry lab and explore.
Data visualization is a huge part of VR.  Chemistry researchers are already envisioning how it could be used to better understand advanced chemical interactions.
An academic paper on how immersive simulation can advance the learning of chemistry.

A trip through the body.  You can observe infections happening at a microscopic level.  It has my twelve year old talking about viral nucleocapsids - I have no idea what he's talking about.

Gender and Virtual Reality
There has been a lot of talk about gender in schools this year.  The immersive nature of VR means empathy can go from difficult to access to something approaching a lived experience.  Having a red neck experience the looks of distrust aimed at a black man or a misogynist spend an hour as a woman would go a long way toward addressing inequity.  It's hard to hate or belittle someone when you've spent some time in their shoes.

Foundry10 Virtual Reality Research

Foundry10 has been a fantastic resource in our exploration of virtual reality.  They are a Seattle based research group focused on how VR might be used in education.


Does VR have any value beyond entertainment?  It's an explosive new area of technological growth and we've barely begun to explore what it can do.  Even so, there are already hundreds of immediately useful educationally focused VR apps, and more come on line every day.

VR as a tool for pain management